Germany represented one kind of test, and its aftermath quite another. Hurdles come quickly at a World Cup, and each has the power to alter your trajectory, not to mention the perception of your team.
So, Mexico beat the world champions. What a start, and what a story. But suffer a hangover in the second game against South Korea, lose focus against an inferior side, and the momentum and mojo with which El Tri kicked off this World Cup would evaporate.
"Our goal wasn’t to come here and just beat Germany. It goes beyond that, and we’re going to keep working,” captain Andrés Guardado said during the buildup to Saturday’s showdown against Korea.
And so they did. There was no collective letdown. Just effort, composure, and a deserved 2-1 win in Rostov-on-Don. At 2-0-0, El Tri now has a very good chance to reach the round-of-16 and, perhaps, that elusive quinto partido. It needs at least a tie against Sweden (1-1-0) on Wednesday to ensure passage (and win the group), and could even move on with a loss if Germany (1-1-0) somehow doesn't beat Korea (0-2-0). The Germans saved their World Cup with a dramatic 2-1 defeat of Sweden later Saturday.
Mexico’s stars shone at the Rostov Arena, as Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández scored the goals, Hirving Lozano set up the game-winner on a brilliant counter and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa made a couple significant saves. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio will get plaudits as well. The crowd in Rostov, where there was yet another Mexican home-field advantage at this World Cup, could be heard chanting “El Profe Osorio” as Mexico marched to victory. Perhaps some of those same fans were among those who once demanded his ouster at the Estadio Azteca.
“Football is subjective,” Osorio told reporters after Saturday’s win. “There are lots of different opinions. That’s inherent to the sport, and much of the analysis and assessment has to do with the final score. The most appropriate course of action is to keep working on our preparation.”
He added, “I’d like to thank those who cheered me on.”
Among Osorio’s biggest believers have been his players. Despite some heavy losses—the historic 7-0 quarterfinal beatdown by Chile at the 2016 Copa América Centenario springs to mind—Osorio never seemed to lose his team. Mexico’s players appear cohesive and well-versed in their roles despite the manager’s notorious tinkering, and even Vela—a brilliant but mercurial attacker who refused to play in the 2014 World Cup or 2012 Olympics—appears to be 100% on board.
“Mr. Osorio deserves all of this—the entire country, all these fans,” Hernández said Tuesday.
Osorio actually made just one change in personnel from the team that defeated Germany, 1-0, in Moscow. Edson Álvarez, who’s just 20 years old, started instead of the veteran Hugo Ayala (Álvarez played right back, moving Carlos Salcedo to the center alongside Héctor Moreno). The front six stayed the same.
Ultimately, it turned out the game itself represented the most significant departure from the opener against Die Mannschaft. While Mexico was focused then on creating midfield havoc and countering against an overcommitted German rearguard, on Saturday in Rostov, it was El Tri who had the vast majority of possession. That presented a different sort of challenge, both in breaking down the opposition and when keeping track of Korea’s primary offensive threat, Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min. Mexico had most of the ball in the early going, but Korea had a couple good looks thanks to quick long passes over the top and Son’s athleticism and nose for goal.
The Koreans also played physically and were whistled for 24 fouls over the 90-plus minutes.
One of them, a non-contact foul, helped Mexico take the lead in the 26th minute. Guardado’s cross was handled by defender Jang Hyun-soo, and Vela coolly dispatched the resulting penalty kick. And the player who rejected national team call-ups for three years kissed the crest on his jersey in celebration.
If Osorio and Vela have earned some level of redemption here in Russia, then so did Hernández. It’s not nearly on the same scale, but had he been more efficient in the attacking third against Germany, El Tri would’ve beaten the champs by a far more flattering scoreline. Mexico didn’t need Chicharito to be in a slump. In the 66th, he confirmed he wasn’t, finishing off a counterattack engineered by Lozano with an adroit touch past a sliding Jang, followed by a near-post finish. It was his 50th goal for Mexico, and it put the game out of reach.
Son scored on a beautiful curler in stoppage time to ruin Ochoa’s clean sheet, but it didn’t ruin the day or the narrative. Had the goal come earlier, this Mexican team would’ve figured out a way to see the game out. This group does feel different. It’s now proven to be one that doesn’t play to the level of it opponents, that doesn’t get overwhelmed by big occasions and that doesn’t get distracted from the game by gamesmanship.
Naturally, that could change in a few days. That’s the nature of a World Cup, and there are higher hurdles to come. But Osorio is keeping track of it all, as usual.
“We cannot get carried away with our victory,” he said. “We have to keep intact our humility and modesty, and play the next match as it if were our last.”